The Single Axiom of Visualization

Visualization (as well as art or design) is somehow considered to be subjective business. One likes blue, another likes yellow. One like scatter-plots, another like pie-charts. Any discussion about visualization is a discussion about personal preferences, and therefore meaningless.

Is it true? Or is it possible formulate an objective criteria for good visualization? I believe there is a single criteria which would be simple and general enough. I call it the single axiom of visualization:

Visualization is here to do certain stuff

The point here is: any evaluation of any figure must be based on two fundamental questions: what this figure is trying to do, and is it efficient in doing so? Any other criteria (such us Tufte’s data/ink ratio) should be applied keeping this two questions in mind.

In science, visualization is used in two main situations:

1. Exploratory analysis. Visualized is made to reveal some hidden trends, patterns and oddities. In this situation, one usually doesn’t know what he/she is searching for. Figures are meant for the researcher himself (or his research group). One can create as many figures as he/she wants and as complex as he/she requires.

2. Illustration in the scientific publication. Visualization is made to present, explain or prove the findings of the researcher (i.e. for the same reason as the text in the publication). One always knows what point he/she wants to demonstrate with particular figure. Figures will be read by wide, but educated audience. Space in the publication itself is usually limited so that only a few figures can be used, yet sometimes supplementary materials can be exploited. When preparing figures for publications, one should keep in mind that his/her publication could be printed out in black and white.

Depending on the situation, goals of the visualization are different, so the principles of visualization should be different too. For example, one should not present information using the contrast between red and green, as colorblind readers will be unable to see it. But why  should one follow this rule while doing exploratory visualization, and knowing that he/she is not colorblind?

PS:  Andrew Gelman discusses this issues a lot, for example here here

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The Single Axiom of Visualization

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